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Kennewick Man, Captain Picard, and Political Correctness

The following posting sums up the Kennewick Man controversy:

The Great White Myth of Kennewick Man

By Knute Berger, AlterNet

Posted on July 3, 2001, Printed on September 7, 2007

Five years ago this July, an ancient skeleton was found on the banks of the Columbia River during a hydroplane race near Kennewick, Washington. When the bones turned out to be a major archaeological find, the remains of a 9,000 year-old prehistoric man, a political, legal, cultural, and racial battle ensued. Just who was Kennewick Man, who owned his bones, and what should be done with them?

The Indians and Federal government have argued that the law — specifically, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — gives local tribes, including the Umatilla, Colville, Yakama, and Nez Perce, the right to have the bones, and the right to dispose of them in any way they choose. The Indians have dubbed Kennewick Man "the Ancient One" and claim the right to rebury him according to their traditional practices with or without further study. But a group of prominent scientists has disagreed, choosing instead to challenge the law in Federal court, where arguments are being heard this week and a ruling is expected later this summer. They want to study the bones, which they argue are potentially of great scientific value. They also argue that Kennewick Man is so old, he cannot be properly affiliated with any modern-day tribe. In essence, they say, Kennewick Man is no Indian — even if he might be a native American.

While no one has argued that Kennewick Man is — or was — a Native American in the modern sense, the general consensus is that today's Indians have all descended from North America's early inhabitants, the paleo-Indian hunters who came across the land bridge from Asia after the last Ice Age and slowly populated the continent. But part of the scientific interest in Kennewick Man stems from the fact that long-held notions about how the Americas were populated are being revised: There is now substantial evidence that there may have been many migrations during and between ice ages, going back not just 12,000 or so years ago, but perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 years. Kennewick Man and his ilk may be part of a much more complicated story that we don't know much about yet. Some have suggested that these early immigrants to the Americas may have come not only on foot but by skin boat, and there is some evidence — tool designs, for example — that suggests some may have shared their origins with inhabitants of a prehistoric Europe.

This last possibility has added major fuel to the Kennewick Man fire. The first scientist to examine the bones, anthropologist James Chatters, reported that Kennewick Man's skull exhibited "caucasoid" characteristics — a politically charged word that many interpreted to mean "caucasian," or "white." Indeed, Chatters says that he at first thought he was inspecting the skeleton of a white settler. The possibility that 9,000 years ago, white men were wandering around the Americas fed both the controversy and public interest — even though no one credible was explicitly making the claim that Kennewick Man was a white man (though the Asatru Folk Assembly, a Northwest neo-pagan group associated with white supremicists, also sued over the bones). It didn't help matters when Chatters released an image reconstructing Kennewick Man's face that showed him to be the spitting image of British actor Patrick Stewart, famous for playing starship captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Trek Next Generation TV series. Funnily enough, Vine Deloria, Jr. has pointed out that Kennewick Man/Picard is also the spitting image of an 1833 portrait of Chief Black Hawk. In any case, Chatters' words and images had indelibly set the image in peoples' minds that Kennewick Man was a caucasian — or at the very least, a proto-white man rather than a proto-Indian.

That bit of mystery suggested that the scientists who wanted to study Kennewick Man and sample his DNA had a valid reason for doing so — to see if he was white or not — and made the Indian opposition look as if it was trying to mount a cover-up. For the Indians' part, not only were white scientists trying to desecrate the remains of one of their distant ancestors, but they were blatantly trying to undermine Native American identity and beliefs — which include a mythology that doesn't recognize that their ancestors were migrants from anywhere including Asia, let alone Europe.

Native American skepticism about science is understandable. White science claims to be the antithesis of mythology — but what is a hypothesis? It is a mini-scientific myth, a for-instance or a what-if that suggests we try a truth on for size until it no longer fits. Many of the questions science asks itself –many of the positions it posits for testing — come from deeply rooted cultural and political beliefs. In the 19th century, scientists believed that racial characteristics were all-important, and that the study of bones would tell them what we all needed to know about each race — including why others were inferior. That science has been thoroughly discredited, but not until hundreds of thousands of Indian bones had been robbed from graves, collected from bounty hunters, measured and stored in museums — most of them without the permission of the individuals, families, and tribes involved. David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History in New York, last year wrote a superb book on the sordid history of archaeology and Native Americans, appropriately titled Skull Wars. In light of this background, it's difficult to suggest that anyone approaching Kennewick Man in the name of science would be doing so without having — or being thought to have — a larger agenda. And when that agenda explicity includes re-looking at the origins of Native Americans, one can understand why the debate around Kennewick Man has been so volatile.

What has been lost in much of the debate around Kennewick Man is the white man's own mythology. The idea that the Kennewick bones may have belonged to a white man doesn't simply spring from only from innocent scientific curisoity, but also from very old impulses that have resonated since 1492 — perhaps longer. For five centuries, there has been a lingering desire to establish that Europeans or others with whom they identified (Biblical peoples) were here before the Indians — or, that whites in fact are the Indians. Call it The Great White Myth, one as durable as Eden or El Dorado. Some whites are not merely content with having taken the continent, they want to colonize its history.

After the European "discovery" of American, there was much speculation about the people who lived here. There was also a fascination in the late Renaissance with "recovered knowledge," the belief that the ancients had secreted away wisdom that would be of great benefit today, helping to usher in a new age or renewal, the "great instauration" as Sir Francis Bacon termed it. In that context, the peoples of the New World could in fact be an older version of oursleves. Were they outcasts from the Biblical Eden? Were they survivors of Atlantis, Plato's lost continent? Were they remnants of the Lost Tribes of Israel or survivors of the Great Flood?

When the Elizabethans began looking for historical justifications for their expansionist plans — you know it as the British Empire — their wisest men cited as precedents the story of King Arthur, who supposedly sent a large expedition into the Arctic regions which never returned but was thought to have survived and maybe colonized unknown lands. There was the voyage of the Irish monk Brendan. And there was the legend of the Welsh Prince, Madoch, who is said to have established a colony in America somewhere near today's Mobile, Alabama in the year 1170. The colony moved inland, and was lost, but for centuries afterward reports of so-called white or Welsh Indians who were light skinned and blue-eyed filtered out of the continent. The Mandans were said to be descended from the prince's people; the Cherokees had heard of them; on maps, they were referred to as the "White Paduchas." If you think that's farfetched, at least one of the best minds of the late 18th and early 19th century did not. When Thomas Jefferson sent the first American scientific expedition across the continent, he personally asked Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for them. When the explorers encountered the Salish-speaking Flatheads, they noted their language carefully, believing its gutteral tones to possibly be evidence of vestigal Welsh. Some members of the expedition were sure they had found the Welsh Indians at last.

As the continent was settled, so was the myth of the Welsh Indians. They were never found, though stories about them moved with the frontier — the last one placing them somewhere in Northern British Columbia. Perhaps they were simply wiped out by smallpox or one of the other innumerable plagues that depopulated the countryside with the European advance. More likely they simply represented a perpetual mirage in the European mind that a kind of deeper, more genuine claim could be made of the land. We were not conquering America — we were reconquering it, not unlike the way Europeans reconquered the Iberian Peninusla from the Moors — a task the Spanish completed the same year Columbus bumped into the Americas.

Today, we've explored all the lonesome bits and pieces: there is no place for the Welsh Indians to be hiding, except in history. The evidence is conclusive that the Vikings were in North American about 500 years before Columbus. It shouldn't be surprising that others are trying to push the white window back even further. In the mid-1990s, the Canadian writer Farley Mowat, an early advocate of the idea that the Norse beat Columbus here, wrote a book called The Farfarers which suggests that a people he calls the "Alban" — which derives from Albion, the ancient Greek name for Britain which means "white" — came to North American 500 years before the Vikings. In fact, he says, they settled and occupied the Canadian Arctic, probably before the Inuit arrived. White men, in other words, may have been the first Eskimos!

Of course, there's very little proof the Alban ever existed in Europe, let alone North America. Mowat's book is filled with historical musings backed by some archaeological curiosities, but mostly it's projection wrapped in a big wad of wishful thinking. It's that wishful thinking that has resurfaced in the case of Kennewick Man. I admit even I was thrilled that he might have been some kind of wandering Norseman who found his way across the icemass from Norway to Greenland and down through Canada into the Columbia River Basin. What person named "Knute" wouldn't be? But it is, I think, part of an urge we have to look at the place we call home and see our reflections in it, reflections like those in endless carnival funhouse infinity mirrors: the past is us, going on forever.

Kennewick Man offers an incredibly rich opportunity for everyone to seek these reflections for themselves. Native Americans can cloak him with a wise, spiritual persona that reflects their ways — traditions that may not have come into existence until 5,000 years after Kennewick Man was dead and buried. Scientists can pose as wise men too, standing up against Native American "creationism" in the name of the truth, yet perpetuating their own myth of objectivity. And Euro-Americans can tap into a longstanding yearning to belong in a place we took from its inhabitants, a land dripping with the irony of a history we hope will prove that whites are the real "native" Americans, as if that would justify all we have done.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Comment:  The Kennewick Man case is an excellent example of multiculturalism in action. It pits the newfound rationality of Western civilization against the much older spirituality of indigenous cultures. One might call it the original culture war.

Spirituality may have reached its apotheosis when the young generation overthrew the "conventional wisdom" in the 1960s and declared "love is all you need." And rationality may have reached its apotheosis when Hitler declared a scientific basis for exterminating six million Jews. (A few people may disagree with these characterizations.)

Anyway, the scientists seem to have won in Kennewick Man's case, but the struggle will go on.

Anglos hope to take from Indians...again
Perhaps more important than this particuar battle is what the conflict is really about. As in the Kennewick case, critics are quick to seize on any evidence that non-Indians (i.e., white people who look like starship captains) were the first to inhabit the "New World." Their not-so-subtle message:

This land is our land, this land isn't your land. Not only do we own everything now, we owned it then too. Forget your sovereignty, your treaty rights, your gaming profits. They're all based on a false premise: that you developed an inviolable bond with the land long before foreigners set foot on it.

Sorry, it didn't happen that way. Science says so and science is never wrong. Quit complaining and go back to your reservations where you belong. Be grateful that we gave you that much even though our ancestors were here first.

This racist notion is based on the belief that Indians came from Asia 12,000 or 13,000 years ago and that non-Indians (from Polynesia, Europe, or Africa) came around the same time or a bit earlier. Unfortunately for the critics, science is proving their theory wrong. Archeologists are finding sites that may push the arrival of Indians back 20,000 or even 50,000 years.

For a good summary of the research, see Rediscovering America:  "The New World may be 20,000 years older than experts thought." And for the latest developments....

From the Associated Press:

Nov 18, 10:10 AM EST

Fire pit dated to be over 50,000 years old

Associated Press Writer

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — In the growing debate about when people first appeared on this continent, a leading archaeologist said Wednesday he has discovered what could be sooty evidence of human occupation in North America tens of thousands of years earlier than is commonly believed.

University of South Carolina archaeologist Al Goodyear said he has uncovered a layer of charcoal from a possible hearth or fire pit at a site near the Savannah River.

Samples from the layer have been laboratory-dated to more than 50,000 years old. Yet Goodyear stopped short of declaring it proof of the continent's earliest human occupation.

"It does look like a hearth," he said, "and the material that was dated has been burned."

Since the 1960s, anthropologists have generally accepted that hunters migrated to North America about 13,000 years ago over a land bridge into Alaska following the retreat of Ice Age glaciers.

But other sites, including the Topper dig in South Carolina, have yielded rough stone tools and other artifacts suggesting that humans lived in North America thousands of years earlier when the climate was much colder. While there is no ironclad proof that an older culture existed, scientists are increasingly open to the idea that humans arrived from many other directions besides the northwest, perhaps even sailing across oceans.

But a 50,000-year-old fire pit would scorch the prevailing occupation theory.

So Indians may have been in the Americas much longer than previously thought. That demolishes the alleged importance of Kennewick Man even if he wasn't a Paleo-Indian. Whoever he was, he was a latecomer to the region and his presence can't overturn any established theories.

Once again, that means the First Americans undoubtedly were the first Americans. The moral and legal rights they earned by being here first still pertain.

Did Indians come from Siberia?
It's entirely possible that the Paleo-Indians didn't all come from Siberia over the Bering Strait. Scientists are increasingly finding that they may have come from several locations via several routes:

December 13, 2005

Skulls Suggest Differing Stocks for First Americans

Some of the first Americans may have been Australians.

A new study of Brazilian skulls ranging from 11,000 to 7,500 years old has revealed that they have more in common with Aboriginal Australians and Melanesians than modern Native Americans.


Skulls shed new light on migration to Americas

Cranial shapes hint at two separate waves of settlers, scientists say

By Bjorn Carey
Updated: 5:39 p.m. ET Dec. 12, 2005

For decades it has been believed that the first peoples to populate North and South America crossed over from Siberia by way of the Bering Strait on a land-ice bridge.

However, a new study examining the largest collection of South American skulls ever assembled suggests that a different population may have crossed the bridge to the New World 3,000 years before those Siberians.

Are Indians protesting the scientific study of these other remains? Because they're afraid the remains will overturn the present theory of their origin, and perhaps their land and gaming rights? No. The very thought is ridiculous.

The lack of protests about anything other than Kennewick Man suggests the sincerity of the Indians' claims. They aren't upset by any scientific study of old remains. They're upset only when they believe the remains belong to their ancestors and deserve to be reburied.

The origin of the first Americans in the Stereotype of the Month contest
Numb3rs:  European skull threatens Indian land, casino rights
Scientist:  Mexican skulls prove Natives weren't here first
Indians have a "New Age disposition to...invent beliefs"
"The idea of [indigenous] cultural continuity...is unsound"
Researcher claims Hopi and Kokopelli have Hindu origin
Professor says Indians rely on "victimhood," "white guilt"
Online poll ignores Native beliefs on origin of Americas

More on Kennewick Man and the first Americans
Polynesians brought chickens
Scientists vs. tribes over bones
Indians came from Siberia?
A Question of Race:  Forensic Anthropologists Disagree About Racial Characteristics and Bone Structure

The Solutrean hypothesis
Dissing my Solutrean postings
Criticism of Solutrean hypothesis
Paleo-Indians in Journey to 10,000 BC
The Solutrean hypothesis

Related links
Political correctness defined
The myth of Western superiority
Greek lies, historic truth
This ain't no party:  a Columbus Day rant
Native vs. non-Native Americans:  a summary

Readers respond
Time:  Who Were The First Americans?  They may have been a lot like Kennewick Man, whose hotly disputed bones are helping rewrite our earliest history.
"[Kennewick Man] looks like anybody you might see at a pow wow with the exception of the nose."
"How do we know Kennewick Man WASN'T Caucasoid?"

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